Friday, 27 July 2012

Where do symbols come from?

Where do the symbols come from?
That is, where does the developed material that situates symbols, constructs them as meaningful, assigns them content, demarcates some content as primarily associated with this or that symbol and separates it from association with some other symbol, structures the relationships in which symbols may stand, one to another — where does that process of elaboration take place?
Isn’t this process precisely what “culture” — in the sense in which the humanities use that word, less in the sense in which anthropology and sociology use it — constitutes?
So that the various (very various) media, genres, forms of representation and signification, creative activity work out or embody the working out of the structure and content of networks of symbols and the received wisdom or sudden insight that seems to be contained in these.
Then, as some media fall out of use, as some genres wax more popular and their examples more numerous, as new associative or denotative content is associated with some image or word and previously commonplace associations or denotations dwindle and fade away, as the “cultural context” or “cultural landscape” or “cultural situation” changes — never mind why, never mind in response to what sets of other influences or forces — the content of knowledge changes, the meaning of symbols changes, the possibilities for and the meaning of further resignifications change, and the consequences of this cultural situation for whatever other forces or influences it is in relationship with change.
Whether all of that could be worked out more specifically, whether locally or more generally, might be one question. But a different line of questioning might go something like this: what medium exerts (or, media exert) a preponderant influence on people’s background knowledge of the world? Perhaps it makes sense to think of this background knowledge of the world as a “cognitive map” or framework, including categories, contents, signs relevant for classificatory and inferential thinking, the mythic or archetypal or skeletal or “known” world. What content does it assign to or provide for these signs or symbols? What networks of signs/symbols does it set up, hold in place? What activity, behavior (intellible-meaningful activity or behavior that is, we might say “significantly dressed-up activity or behavior” in fact) tends to follow from or circulate around this content? What attitudes and responses and “next moves” and conversational possibilities does it create, foreclose, encourage, discourage?
What kind of people does the cultural scene make it easy for people to be/become? What kind of people does it make it difficult for people to be/become? (Difficult: takes effort, application of resources, decision and perseverance, intention and opposition, possibly some degree of suffering.) What kind of human experience of those kinds of people does it provide for? (for example, how thoughtless and automatic, or uncertain, or riddled with doubts about whether it constitutes the best course of action, or pleasant, or subject to perpetual physical threat but capable of being interpreted as heroic action, etc. . . . )


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